Black Hats and White Hats: American Stereotyping
Nearly 50 years ago I had an American friend, Dave Trumbull, whose father, Howard Trumbull, a missionary, was the treasurer of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, and came to a youth meeting to represent his son, who couldn’t be there on that occasion. Before the meeting he asked me who were the black hats and who were the white hats.
Seeing my bemused expression he explained that in Western movies (in the pre-spaghetti Western days) it was a convention that all the “good guys” wore white hats, and all the “bad guys” wore black hats. Audiences apparently needed these cues as to who were the heroes and who were the villains.
He said (in a rather ironic self-deprecating way) that it was something Americans always wanted to know about every situation they were involved in.
And I said that in the particular situation we were facing, it was not an easy distinction to make. It was rather a matter of good guys making bad decisions. He made some comment to the effect that Americans didn’t like messy situations like that.
I was reminded of him and his comments last week when I posted some links to a blog post and a few newspaper articles on Facebook, and the response of American commenters on them was immediately to look for the “black hats” and put the blame on them.
One of the articles was on my other blog, on The Death of Liberalism in the West, which was mainly about the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party in the UK feeling compelled to resign because he thought his faith was not accepted in the UK political arena. Two American friends responded with comments on Facebook rather than on the blog post (so I don’t know if either of them actually read the blog post, much less the statement by Tim Farron, the Lib-Dem leader). One identified the Black Hats as right-wing bullies, and the other identified them as left-wing bullies.
I was rather disappointed, as I was trying to understand a phenomenon, rather than looking for scapegoats.
The other thing was that I posted links to some articles about a recent fire in a block of flats in London, in which many people had lost their homes and some had lost their lives. One thing that was clear from the articles was that there had been a lot of bad decisions by various people and organisations, including commercial firms, political parties and and local authorities. But some American commenters were specifically trying to pin the blame on particular people or firms. But not only is the jury still out — it hasn’t been summoned yet to hear the evidence. All the reports show is that there is prima facie evidence of the need for some sort of judicial enquiry. Yet Americans seem to feel an immediate need to pin the blame on someone, to identify the black hats.
I mentioned this to Val on the way to church this morning, and she said, but isn’t that typical of Americans — they love to identify the “bad guys”, and sooner or later go in and bomb them. They did it in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, where there were no good guys. The Americans appointed the bad guys, put black hats on them, and then bombed them. A few years later they did it in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, and then in Libya. Now they are doing it to Syria and Russia.
It’s more than 50 years since the publication of The Ugly American, which dealt with this phenomenon, but it was so effective that most people don’t realise that the eponymous ugly American was the good guy. He was the guy in the white hat.
A few years after my conversation with Howard Trumbull a couple of friends of mine met a US foreign policy boffin by the name of George Kennan. He had the reputation of being one of their biggest fundis on foreign affairs. They came back from lunch with him thinking that he was so naive that it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. He asked them who the good guys and bad guys in Namibia in the early 1970s were, and seemed to believe that a flick of a switch in the depths of the Pentagon would eliminate the bad guys and solve all the problems.
But most of the American I’ve met have been like the ugly American in the story. I’ve met them outside America, because they don’t have this binary opposition attitude. Many of them, like Howard Trumbull, are, or have been, Christian missionaries. So not all Americans are evil scapegoaters.
So, in conclusion, I think that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t, and there are even some Americans in the latter category.